Dulce Gamboa and Demetrios Papademetriou

The impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic has been crushing — the toll it’s taken around the world, including here at home, has impacted everyone.

Quite literally, no one is immune from the threat of this unpredictable virus.

At best our daily routine has been disrupted, and at worst we are among those who’ve tested positive, have become ill, or have loved ones who have died.  

For those growing up in the United States, it’s been our life experience to watch tragedy from a comfortable distance. Hunger, disease, famine and wars took place in distant lands.  

Our television watching has been occasionally interrupted by advertisements to encourage us to send money for impoverished children outside of the United States. But now with COVID-19, the average citizen now well into the second month of lockdown has been given pause to consider how they’ll replenish their own pantries. 

Those who’ve been laid off, furloughed or sick and unable to work have had the added pressure of watching their bank balances dwindle. It’s been a hard reality check for those who never thought they could be vulnerable. 

During a recent teleconference held by Ethnic Media Services,  Demetrious Papademetriou, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute and a Distinguished Transatlantic Fellow in Washington D.C., drew the comparison between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930’s, referring to our present situation as an “economic abyss.” 

Dulce Gamboa, policy Specialist and Senior Catholic Latino Associate of Bread for the World, said, “COVID-19 is expected to double the number of people facing food insecurity. The world has never seen a pandemic like this. It’s unprecedented.”

“COVID-19 is expected to drive up hunger especially in countries already suffering from food crises,  meaning they don’t have enough food and there are higher levels of acute malnutrition.

For example, people in Angola, South Sudan, Yemen, and the drought-affected parts of Pakistan, as well as Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and Ecuador, are already acutely food insecure and at higher risk of starvation from COVID-19,” Gamboa said.

But one doesn’t have to look internationally. We see those in need of food daily throughout the San Fernando Valley, as people who’ve never gone to a food bank before now cue up in the long lines of cars for free food at local churches, schools and vacant lots. 

Cars lined up are both old and new, of every make and model, symbolizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on people from every socio-economic background. 

This same scene is becoming a “new normal” in cities throughout the United States as people find ways to live and survive through this pandemic. They now join the more than millions of people around the world who now face “food insecurity.” 

In LA county, the number of residents who’ve applied for CalFresh food benefits this month has nearly tripled. They are now turning to public benefits, including the rebranded food stamp program, and to the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS). The program is known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.  

In April, the DPSS received 126,875 applications for CalFresh, commonly referred to as food stamps, compared with 43,747 enrollments in April 2019, according to California state data.  

Loss of US work hurts families abroad

The loss of jobs in California means that people who help support their families who live in countries around the world can no longer help them.These families and world wide economies depend on remittances coming from the United States.  

“Remittances are an essential lifeline for people who receive that money,” Papademetriou said. Money flowing from the United States  “will be thinner and more precarious.”

Not getting money from relatives in the United States could be the difference between eating and not eating, which makes people more vulnerable for contracting the coronavirus Gamboa described. 

“Malnourished people have less effective immune systems,” said Gamboa, adding that a child who is malnourished during his first 1,000 days of life will face a lifetime of stunted growth, both physically and intellectually.”

“This is very important because malnourished people have weaker immune systems, so it’s important we tend to these nutritional necessities so people are better equipped to fight the virus in the case of contraction,” Gamboa said. 

“A young malnourished child will be stunted for life, they’re more prone to get underlying health conditions, and this is why it’s so important during this pandemic that we meet these needs.”

Gamboa concludes that a rise in malnutrition “is inevitable as the economic and health crisis becomes a global hunger crisis,” and the secondary impacts reduce dietary quality, impair WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) practices, and threaten care services for mothers as well as the continuation of regular health and nutrition programs for children. 

“People are saying ‘we’re going to die of hunger before we die of coronavirus.’” she said.

“Even if there is no surge in food prices, the global hunger pandemic will continue,” said Gamboa, noting that the situation will deteriorate most rapidly in countries where a large percentage of the labor force works in the informal economy.”

Undocumented Workforce

 In the United States, many farmworkers from Mexico and Central America continue to work without benefit of legal status but are now viewed as “essential workers.” 

“There has been an elite consensus that has allowed migration to continue to be large and to thrive because of the demography of many of the rich countries,” Papademetriou said. “We will have to see if that elite consensus continues to hold as this pandemic continues,” he said, adding that countries will have to reassess  the number of immigrant workers they need, especially in the agricultural sector. 

Farmworkers’ ability to put food on their own table while working to put food on other’s tables will be impacted by whether they would be allowed to continue to work, as global migration has come to a halt and potential workers have been sent back to their home countries. 

Papademetriou said it was too early to assess whether the US would grant legal status to essential undocumented immigrants,  but previous years without the pressure of a pandemic have been unsuccessful. 

“I have spent 14 years attempting to come up with compromises that legislators on both sides were able to support. We have failed every single time,” he said.“The last time we failed big was in 2013 under President Obama. So it’s difficult for me to be optimistic.”

Gamboa said strong leadership in the United States is needed to help millions of others, including women and children  — here in the United States and around the world.